Jim Huskins also tries to present that message to the people he ministers to around Goldsboro, N.C. Huskins, a 1985 graduate of the Divinity School, retired as a United Methodist pastor in 2007. Since last fall he has worked as program director at the Marion Edwards Recovery Center Initiatives (MERCI), a United Methodist disaster relief program in Goldsboro.

Paradox Bound
The economic downturn calls the faithful to live into the future as a people of hope

Disasters now, he notes, are both “natural and unnatural,” as unemployment skyrockets and donations drop — to the point that the MERCI program may be closed, even as its
services are needed more than ever.

But Huskins also believes that rather than just reacting to grinding economic woes, churches and pastors need to be much better prepared to anticipate the pathologies that emerge from a recession so that ministry can head off problems.

When the anger and depression show up at the door in the person of an abused spouse or a backsliding alcoholic, Huskins says, “You’re way behind the power curve.”

The problem, he says, is that churches have not deployed their resources or advertised their services on economic issues and preparedness. “It’s a matter of this being seen as a ministry that can be done through the church.” It is, he says, akin to marriage preparation programs rather than just divorce counseling.

The fearsomeness of the recession, however, is also being viewed as something of an opportunity to create new connections among believers and churches, especially in places that are neither wholly affluent nor completely poor — places like Brighton, a Michigan suburb that lies between Detroit and Ann Arbor.

Scott Chrostek, who serves as associate pastor at the United Methodist Church there, notes that the congregation has members who would be considered upper-middle class, among them a number of auto industry executives. Yet recent months have shown that no one is safe, especially not in a state like Michigan, which is in the sixth year of a “single-state” recession that, if it were reproduced nationally, would qualify as a full-blown depression.

“We were always afraid,” says Chrostek D’06. “But now it’s ingrained in everybody.” In the metropolitan Detroit area one in eight is unemployed, and as Chrostek notes, “that becomes very real in a church of 800 people.” It also becomes very real as the automotive industry, already struggling and now the target of populist ire in other parts of the country, faces the prospect of bankruptcy.

Just talking about the economy isn’t enough, or can even be too much, if done every Sunday, says Chrostek, because people grow discouraged. On the other hand, the fear of losing a job or home or worse has become so pervasive that there is a growing reluctance to speak openly.

Before Christmas last year, the preachers at all three worship services asked everyone connected in any way with the auto industry to stand. Somewhat haltingly at first, people got up until nearly 80 percent of the worshipers were standing.

“We just said, ‘We want to be in prayer for all of you,’ ” Chrostek says. “That has done so much for our congregation. We feel connected.”

“I think this issue is so terrifying to people that a few sermons are not enough,” agrees Lisa Moss Degrenia D’00, pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church, a congregation that averages 190 in worship each Sunday in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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